Why it’s shocking to look back at med school yearbooks from decades agoRoundup
tags: racism, feminism, political history, sexism, medical history, Ralph Northam, yearbooks
Elizabeth Evens is a Ph.D. student at University College London researching gender, sexuality and medicine.
Though they may appear to be innocuous collections of school memories, yearbooks have fueled major political controversies in recent months. Whether the racist photograph of a student in blackface and another in a Klan costume on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page or Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s yearbook jokes about drinking and sex, decades-old school publications have returned to public scrutiny for politicians, and it’s guaranteed that Northam’s will not be the last.
But these shocking pages aren’t as much of an outlier as they might have seemed. During my research into women in medicine in the 20th century, I came across the seemingly peculiar incident of a Playboy centerfold in a medical school yearbook. I soon discovered similar pages in yearbooks from this time across the United States. The books — as yearbooks always do — reflected the contemporaneous culture of the institutions that published them. In the 1960s and 1970s, in medical school, that culture was often roiled by a backlash against women and minorities, as the medical world increasingly opened for people other than white men.
My research found that editors deliberately deployed sexism in yearbooks as women fought to enter coeducational medical schools in higher numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965, women made up less than 10 percent of medical college matriculants. By 1975, that figure had jumped to nearly 25 percent. To wrestle with the significance of this change, predominantly male yearbook editors drew upon the template and vocabulary of Playboy magazine.